Stifel & Capra is artsy, down-to-earth and full of surprises.
This column marks my 16th “What’s in Store” piece for Arlington Magazine. By now, I’ve come to recognize a pattern among many of our area’s independent shopkeepers: Corporate-executive/working-girl tires of the daily grind; takes leap of faith to follow creative dream; opens little shop with a big idea, a bit of luck and a heaping teaspoon of gumption.
The story of Theresa Wells Stifel, owner of the vintage treasure trove and art emporium Stifel & Capra in Falls Church, is really no different. Except that her story starts with a brush with death.
“Seven years ago, my husband, Bob, got strep throat that went untreated,” she says. “He ended up with sepsis, lost his leg, and nearly died.” Stifel sees my jaw drop and pauses for a moment to let me catch my breath. Hadn’t I just seen her hale-and-hearty husband pop into the store with a convivial smile and a sweet compliment for his wife, then stroll off into a back room on a business call?
“This Bob?” I ask in shock. Bob reemerges and flashes me a huge grin, as if on cue, then does a little tap dance for my benefit. “Yep,” Stifel confirms. “They gave him a 3 percent chance of survival. We were really, really lucky.”
Lucky they were, although doctor appointments and medical bills became a constant concern, and Bob was never able to resume his full-time IT job.
Stifel, meanwhile, had left her career as a recruiter to stay home with their two elementary-school-aged kids and pursue her passion for crafts, selling pillows and tote bags at craft shows and markets around the region. (Standing over 6 feet tall, she had long been sewing her own clothes.) These were fun pursuits, but not a reliable source of income for a family coping with a serious medical condition.
Wondering where she could go from there (“sitting in the ICU for six weeks sharpens your perspective,” she says), she decided to combine her business acumen with her creative bent to become an art rep for big corporations. She immediately enlisted five artists who live on her street in Walnut Hill, and in June 2007, with a business loan and a small office directly across from the Falls Church Farmers Market, Stifel & Capra was born. Capra, she explains, is a nod to the director of It’s a Wonderful Life, her metaphorical partner in the venture.
When the financial markets tanked the following year, Stifel’s prospects for developing a corporate clientele diminished. Undaunted, she shifted her business model to retail.
“The same people who wanted to buy their organic apples from the farmers market also wanted to buy art from us,” she says—another stroke of luck. More artists flocked to her door, seeking professional representation. In 2009, she moved into her current space in an old farmhouse on Broad Street, where she’s cultivated a vibe that’s part grandma’s attic, part artist’s loft.
As the retail venture grew, Bob stepped in, both to help his wife run the business and also as a vendor (his barbecue rubs and apple pie spice mix the product of a culinary background). The shop is now home to the wares of about 40 artists and artisans, as well as consignment pieces and vintage finds.
Several rooms in the sprawling space are dedicated to tenants, including designer Cathy Soltys of Joie de Beads, who makes delicate briolette necklaces and colorful jewelry; silversmith and lifestyle curator Christine Bartoletta of Society Hill Designs, who turns religious medals and sterling hairbrushes into wearable art; and Ashleigh Collins of My Two Monkeys, whose room is populated with costume jewels, industrial objets and flea market oddities.
The artwork is entirely local and encompasses a gamut of styles (Stifel’s goal is to provide a little something for every taste). There are works of cut-paper art, realistic watercolors of local landmarks and the gold-leafed iconography of artist Laura Clerici, whose work has also been sold at the National Gallery of Art. Stifel’s own whimsical mixed-media collages hang in a gallery upstairs, in the space where art and craft workshops are held.
I can see why decorators love this place: It’s a treasure hunt, resembling nothing you’ve seen in any shelter magazines or store catalogs. The vignettes are ever-changing, culled from picking trips or consignment deliveries.
Stage managers and movie producers have sought out Stifel & Capra for vintage rentals and period props, both for local theater and big-screen productions, including the 2011 Leonardo diCaprio/Clint Eastwood collaboration, J. Edgar. “Half the garage scene was all our stuff,” Stifel says proudly. “They rented all these industrial-looking tools and boxes. The girls and I would watch the movie and be like, ‘Is that your wrench?? I wonder if Clint Eastwood touched this! Our tools are movie stars!’ ”
The stock is almost too varied to catalog, ranging from modernist to granny-chic. You might come across a set of brass andirons next to letterpress stationery; an antique chinoiserie sewing table that still has all of its lacquered luster; blue Ball jars and art-glass plates from local artists 2 Sisters; Hobnail milk glass perfume vials; and old-timey sepia photos of people you don’t know. Upstairs, you’ll find clothing and accessories culled from all decades, including ’40s-era millinery, groovy dresses, ladies’ gloves and lederhosen.
That’s right. I said lederhosen.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for, Stifel can help track it down, be it a lost treasure from your childhood or just the right button for a beloved overcoat. She can also help you divest those mementos that no longer fit into your life—or your house—through consignment.
“One of the greatest things about working here,” she says, “is seeing that people are so delighted when they finally let go of something and they know it’s going to a good home.”
At the same time, she is vigilant about moving stock. After a month, consignment items get marked down. At the 90-day mark, anything that has not sold is donated or picked up, to create space for new wares.
“So if you don’t see something you have to have today,” Stifel beams, “come back and visit us in two weeks.” It’s a wonderful life.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is Arlington Magazine’s style columnist.